Joyelle McSweeney: "The Contagious Knives," Percussion Grenade

by on Apr.01, 2013

Joyelle McSweeney’s play “The Contagious Knives” will be performed by The Medicine Show Theater on April 19 and 20:


The Medicine Show Theatre Company presents the magical Joyelle McSweeney’s necro-pastoral farce of tremendous importance, “Contagious Knives.” Louis Braille, the Devil, Bradley Manning, Lynndie England, and a wedding chorus come together to smash your facebones with this verse play in Purgatoree.

April 19 & 20 @ 7:30 PM
Tix: $10, $7 for students + seniors

Call 212.262.4126 or e-mail for reservations.


In response to Poetry Society, Joyelle explains the play in typically virtuosic manner.


Inception: I found myself writing “The Contagious Knives” in a fury of contagion; a corrosive tide of rage and frustration at the state of the world, its steady state of exploitation, coercion, misery, metals, charisma. Everything comes out in the river, as Steve Jobs, now dead, said at TED: first time as industrial waste, second time as carcinogen. This is why the language of this play (as in life!) is itself toxic, tidal, runs headlong in riptides, loops in eddies, and piles up in scurfy little pools, reversing and resaying itself in the space of a single line or run of lines, rising in little violent crests. I hope it is rocking, and you can hear it ticking like bad news. TheMerchant of Venice with its accesses of violence and vengeance and its revolting figure of Cruelty-Masked-as-Justice (ie Portia) runs behind this text, as does Sophocles and the glitchy sceneastics of Ryan Trecartin.

Also has also been some recent reviews of Joyelle’s brilliant book Percussion Grenade, which includes “The Contagious Knives.”

For example this one from Coldfront.


What is most striking about this collection is the furious, almost manic pace of the language. In “Indications,” the poem that ignites the collection, the reader is told that “The pieces in this volume… should be read aloud—a-LOUD!” — an imperative that calls for “those bodily and facial poses which communicate so much among the Loony Tunes.” From the get go, then, readers receive a matrix of levels at work: a cartoon violence that is met with solemnity—cartooned exaggerations and postures that might be the only possible and appropriate response to actual traumas, to wartime. McSweeney mashes words together to create a kind of amphetamine-driven lexicon (“Goodmorningnews,” “mountainface,” and “spoonshovelmoon-wide,” to name a few), but at times, it seems as if the sounds are busting out of the frames of the words themselves. Every poem in the “King Prion” series, for example, begins with the striking incantation “—Hoooooooo,” followed by barrages of imagery in which the medical (“A case of adolescent sarc-/Oma) rubs up against the commercial and the political (“…Despite/ the Nazi hinges”) to carve out an aesthetic body (“I’m an artist so/ like a broken clock I never have/ had to Repeat myself—”). Like a fuse sparkling towards its stick of dynamite, the sounds and lines seem to build on one another, working in an idiom of relentless accumulation.

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